The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed summary judgment on behalf of an employer that was sued in an interference claim under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In the case, Hickey v. Protective Life Corporation, which the Seventh Circuit decided on February 12, 2021, the plaintiff had also alleged a retaliation claim under the FMLA, but he voluntarily dismissed that claim prior to summary judgment being entered.
The plaintiff worked as a salesperson selling warranties and insurance products. Following his grandmother's illness and death, the plaintiff began suffering from anxiety and depression and requested a leave of absence under the FMLA, which his employer approved. The defendant merged with another entity during the plaintiff's leave of absence. As a result of that merger, the plaintiff's geographic area was adjusted, in a favorable way, by assigning him an area that was closer to his residence. The employer also promised the plaintiff that his compensation (i.e., his commissions) would be guaranteed at the same level for six months following his leave of absence.
Shortly after returning to work, the plaintiff was fired for insubordination and lack of interest. He sued under retaliation and interference, but then voluntarily dropped his retaliation claim. The Hickey court then granted summary judgment on the FMLA interference claim.
The Court's Analysis
The court pointed out that the FMLA makes it '"unlawful for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise, any right' provided in the FMLA." The court also noted that under an FMLA interference claim, a successful plaintiff is entitled to only three remedies: (1) compensation or benefits lost by the violation, (2) actual monetary losses associated with the violation, or (3) appropriate equitable relief such as employment, reinstatement or promotion.
Because the plaintiff's compensation was guaranteed for six months upon his return from the leave of absence, the first category of damages was unavailable. The second category of damages covers situations in which, for example, a plaintiff must hire a private caregiver for a covered family member with a serious health condition if his or her FMLA leave is unlawfully withheld. This type of remedy was not available to the plaintiff in Hickey. The third category of remedies was likewise inapplicable to the plaintiff because he was reinstated to an equivalent position following his leave of absence.
The Hickey court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendant because the plaintiff was not entitled to any of the types of statutory relief authorized for FMLA interference claims. In other words, no harm, no foul.
If faced with allegations of FMLA interference, employers may want to carefully review potential remedies available to assess the risk and identify potential defenses to FMLA claims. The lack of any potential remedy may be a basis for dismissal of the claim. Employers may also want to keep in mind that there may be different potential remedies under any applicable state FMLA law.
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